47 years ago today I left Vietnam. It’s an anniversary date, one that will never be forgotten.
Burger Bars and Southern Belles
September 15, 1968 / Cam Ranh Bay RVN
Stepping off the C-130 that carried us from Chu Lai, we were herded into a waiting deuce-and-a-half and made our way through the compound. Cam Rahn was another large military installation filled with “rear area” activity. It was a bustling city filled with officers and EM in clean, starched fatigues and polished boots…and the always present Vietnamese locals. Those of us who were here to make our way back home stood out like folks from across the tracks; our fatigues and boots bore the wear and tear of red dirt and lack of spit and polish from places other than the rear. It was like the war was somewhere else or maybe hadn’t existed at all.
The deuce-and-a-half delivered us to the holdover quarters where we would wait until our Freedom Bird flight left for the World. We were met by a spit and polish staff sergeant whose last assignment must have been one that had him greet new recruits into army life. He barked out orders like an eager DI and directed us toward the building that would house us until it was time to leave. No one paid attention to him, and he seemed to pay no notice to us. He was content to pretend he was important. Once inside, he informed us that our flight was due to leave around eight p.m. that night, and that he’d return in a half hour to put us on a police detail. Police detail!?
Our jaws dropped as we watched this REMF NCO swagger out the door. We stared in disbelief at one another. You gotta be fuckin’ kidding me! Did we hear that right…police the goddam area? Bullshit…there was no way in hell we were we going to clean this guys area of paper and cigarette butts. We didn’t expect, or want, preferential treatment. Maybe a little respect for having spent time outside the wire-we just wanted to leave Vietnam-and the sooner the better. And no police detail.
We took a quick vote and six of us decided to take off to go find something to eat. It was after 10:00 in the morning and most of us hadn’t eaten since the night before. So, with orders in hand we walked out the door and headed in the direction of the PX.
We found a Burger Bar. I mean an actual Burger Bar! All that was missing were the sweet teenaged girls behind the counter flashing their sweet teenaged smiles. What we got instead were the grumpy, unsmiling privates in green fatigues. But, we did get a good hamburger…with fries and a Coke, or maybe it was a Pepsi. No matter, it had been a long time since our last journey to a burger joint. For all we knew, the meal was the worst ever.
After wandering around for a couple of hours and assuming that the “detail” was done, we made our way back to the holdover hooch. It seems that after we left a few others decided to escape the detail also, and those that remained confirmed that the NCO did return and have them police the area. Our stomachs satisfied, we stretched out on the cots and waited for our ride to the airstrip later that evening. We might have caught some Z’s. Don’t recall. When the long-awaited ride did come, it was another NCO, just as spit and shine, but much more cheerful, who gathered us up, loaded us up, and wished us well. Nice.
We were giddy with restrained excitement and disbelief as the deuce rumbled through the compound and made its way to the airstrip. We were that much closer to going home…but we weren’t out of Vietnam yet.
The deuce stopped and we were guided into a small Quonset hut where others were waiting for their trip home. What came next was our “debriefing.” An officer entered, smiled, and welcomed us. He then began to tell us that once we get home we would find things “different.” Different!? God, I hope so. Although, with the Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy assassinations just a few months earlier, the joke was we’d be allowed to take our weapons with us so that we could fight our way home if necessary. However, those killings did leave so many of us with doubts of what “home” really was. Violent and deliberate death is an everyday event in a war zone. You accept that. You live with that reality moment to moment and you find a way to deal with it. Home was supposed to be the refuge away from that reality. Home was the safe zone. Home was the “world” where our lives would resume; pick up where we left off.
The debriefing lasted around thirty minutes of which maybe five were heard. Our thoughts and attention were not on the officer lecturing us. Blah-blah-blah…good luck men. Dismissed. That was it. Thirty minutes and we were ready to live our normal lives again. It was that easy. So they thought. And, so we thought as we marched to the hut that served as terminal, show your orders, receive a flight voucher and head out to the flight line and the waiting Freedom Bird.
We made our way up the portable passenger stairs and boarded the plane that had come to take us home. It was a civilian plane, Central Airlines I think. The image of that plane sitting on the runway is stuck in my memory like an old rumpled photograph I carry around in my wallet and I just can’t find the heart to toss it.
It was around nine p.m. The stewardesses were all young, beautiful southern belles with soft, lacey “y’all” accents. They looked so good to us and smelled just as nice. Other than the nurses and the occasional visits from the Red Cross “donut dollies,” these lovely and graceful ladies were the first non-military American women we had seen in a very long time.
You would think that being in the presence of those lovely ladies would have turned us into drooling, silly seventh grade boys. But that was not the case. We shared a common, ever present thought that stayed with us our entire tour: would we live to see this day? We were more concerned about getting off the ground and into the air.
We knew we weren’t safe yet. There were many incidences of mortar or rocket rounds killing troops who were homeward bound. To have survived your tour only to be killed on the way out was the final insane absurdity delivered by the beast. Working hurriedly, but gently, they got us seated; they didn’t want to hang around any longer than we did. We were just as anxious as they to leave that goddamned place with all its death and misery.
With everyone belted in, the plane taxied into position. Given final clearance for take off, the plane lurched forward pushing us back into our seats. I had a window seat and watched as the runway lights raced past, faster and faster. The plane rotated upwards and we left the ground…Vietnam was now rapidly slipping away under us.
I’ve heard stories of flights that erupted into roaring cheers when the plane left the ground, but not this one…not this time. It was stone quiet as we climbed higher and higher into the black night.
Through the window I saw explosive flashes and lines of tracers arcing through the void. Down there the war still raged. Down there someone was still dying. And we were on our way home. The plane banked and we headed out to sea. We had survived our tours and were headed back to the world. I leaned back into my seat and let silent tears fall as Vietnam disappeared.
Doc Rich R